ONE-ON-ONE WITH PAULA PATTON Interview by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for Radio Free Entertainment
August 12, 2008
In a relatively short amount of time, actress Paula Patton has put together an impressive run of studio films with strong casts. We first met her two years ago, while she was promoting the inventive, unconventional musical Idlewild with Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton of OutKast. Since then, she has starred opposite Denzel Washington in Deja Vu, and opposite Kevin Costner in Swing Vote. Now she joins Kiefer Sutherland and Amy Smart in Alexandre Aja's horror flick Mirrors.
Paula's fans will find her role in Mirrors an interesting change of pace for three reasons: she plays a mother; she plays a villain, though briefly in an alter-ego fantasy sequence of sorts; and she plays a woman who is somber and sullen. Of these three departures from her previous major roles, the last point may be the most striking, if only for the fact that the tragic, downtrodden demeanor of her character runs so contrary to the bright, bubbly personality that has made her a favorite amongst movie reporters and interviewers. To say that she's nice is an understatement--in each of her press tours, she has been sweet, funny, and entertaining, with an enthusiastic energy level that has become her trademark and prompted positive comments from her co-stars. And all the while, she has not only kept a level head, but a personality that is hard-wired to inherently downplay her success and put others ahead of herself.
While promoting Mirrors, Paula graciously took some time to speak to us about a variety of topics both silly and serious. (Okay..."semi-serious." It's hard to get all Inside the Actors Studio when you're doing a Q&A with someone as fun as Paula.) In this exclusive "get to know you" interview, she talks about her early days as a production assistant and struggling actor, shamelessly concocts casting rumors with us, and probably agitates a few vegetarians. Yay meat.
RadioFree.com: What was your first reaction to the flooded house scene in Mirrors: clever plot twist, or convenient excuse for a wet t-shirt contest?
PAULA: I definitely thought it was a clever plot twist. Because I understood that before there were actual mirrors, I think that they would bring [water] out in like silver bowls, and that's how people would look at their reflection--they'd bring that out, and that would be your way to see yourself, was water within the silver bowl. And so water was, I guess, man/woman's first encounter with their own reflection. So I thought it was interesting that when they took out all of our modern reflective surfaces, that then [snaps fingers] they brought something in that you could not avoid, which is the water.
We got to see you play a mom in this film, which is something different for you. Did you bond with your onscreen kids, or were they actually little adults projecting the box office gross?
No, not at all! These were real little kids. They were. They hadn't been in very much beforehand, and so they were just regular kids who wanted to play. And as soon as they came to work on the movie, I just tried to embrace them and be mother-like, you know? You try to create your own reality while you're on set. I'm like, "Call my mom, whatever you need to do." Or if there was downtime, often times I'd try to keep them sort of in the zone, in character, for the film. Because it's easy to be distracted by everything that's around you. In between takes, I said, "Let's draw, let's play." So I did try to create that relationship. And because they were also wonderful kids, and cute and fun. [laughs]
We also get to see you be a villain, albeit briefly. Though that qualifies you for our movie award for Best Female Villain...
Oh, I don't know about that! I would lose. But I would love it. [laughs]
You previously talked about wanting more of an opportunity to play a villainous character. Got any specific roles in mind?
Oh, God...Well, I have to tell you, after seeing [The Dark Knight] and seeing what Heath Ledger did...I mean, I don't even know if I'd want to even dream of coming after that! And I don't know if they're going to bring Catwoman back or whatever. [laughs] But gosh, was he not just magnificent? I just watched it with my mouth open...Remarkable! Anyways, that's a fun movie franchise to be a villain in, just because it's so human and interesting. And maybe I could be like in Annie? Be the mean house maiden mother? [laughs] No, I don't know. We'll just have to see!
You just fired up the rumor mill...
Exactly, there you go!
Your Mirrors character is such a somber contrast to the personality we've seen from you in interviews. It's like you and Jennifer Love Hewitt are the two bubbliest people in Hollywood...
Ah! [mock challenging] "I'll take ya on, Jennifer!" No... [laughs]
This is a really stupid question, and yet it must be asked: do you actually have bad days and pet peeves?
Oh, absolutely. Dishonesty is a pet peeve. Mean people. People who are judgmental and cruel. Ummm...Gosh...The heat? No, I'm kidding. I don't know. I mean, things bother me all the time. The truth is that you don't come to do press and things like that to give people your nasty side. [laughs] Do you know what I mean? No, it's the truth! I mean, I'm a happy person. I really am. I feel very lucky about my life. I like to wake up and I like to see the glass half full instead of half empty, do you know? And I feel very blessed to do what I do, because not a lot of people get to do this. And a day like today, for me, is celebrating the hard work of Alex Aja and Kiefer and everything. I'm in a really great mood. [laughs] I don't know, I have no reason not to be. But I'm a human being like everybody, and I have bad days, and I have days when I get angry and sad and hurt, like anybody.
You worked as a production assistant before taking up acting full-time. Do you think that stint gave you a better perspective on how to treat people in this industry?
Definitely. I mean, I've been the invisible one on set, you know? And I've been able to see all of the people it takes to make a movie happen. I think sometimes, some actors (not a lot, but some) seem to feel like a movie begins and ends with them, and that's not true. If you don't have good sound, if you don't have great lighting, and a director that sets up the scene correctly, and a cinematographer that gets your right performance, then you've got nothing. And you need a PA--like I was, you know?--to do all that laborious work and go-getting and stuff. All these things need to be in place for a movie to turn out well. And everybody needs their respect and their due, because it takes an army, essentially, to make a film. So yeah, I think that I have, from my experience in the back, a lot of compassion for all the crew members.
Any horror stories of people treating you badly on that job? Did anyone actually knock a cup of coffee out of your hand?
Oh, wow! Not like that. But I've certainly been yelled at. I'll never forget, I was working as a PA on a movie, and I was just so eager to please, you know? And we were on the walkie-talkie, and they were like, "Paula, can you go do this?" I was like, "No problem, got it!" And I kept doing that. [laughs] And they go, [angrily] "It's 'copy that!'" The lingo that you needed to know. I think that it's more of an energy that people give you. I've never had anybody do anything violent or mean to me, just sometimes, I guess, [be] a bit harsh--I've just taken the brunt of it. They're probably angry at somebody else, and then they yell at you to go do something.
Back in those days, was there anything that blew you away about being on a movie set?
Gosh...To me, I still am blown away by how the whole team of the cinematographer, the lighting, the set design work together to create something, and how they set up a scene to look a certain way...I can't explain it, but I guess it's how they alter how something looks in reality into what it looks like in the camera. [That] always fascinates me--how space is compressed, and that there's like a science to the way that the lighting guy knows "if you hit it like this, it'll come back this way, which will then illuminate from below..." [laughs] The way they understand how to pull together a whole scene, that visual element, still, I'm in awe of. [pauses] Did I answer, or was that kind of convoluted? I'm sorry.
I would have just said "the kraft service," so your answer was insightful.
Okay, I'll take insightful! [laughs]
Our trademark Rorschach question...What is your favorite black and white animal: panda, penguin, cow, or something else?
I'm supposed to do it like fast? [snaps fingers] Cow!
They seem nice. They don't eat meat.
[laughs] Wow, I guess not...
I eat meat! [laughs]
Good for you! Congratulations!
I eat cows! This is horrible! [gasps]
Especially being an Los Angeles native...
Yeah, I know. I eat cow, and I want to be a cow. That's weird. [shrugs] I don't know what to tell you.
[deadpans] That's quite the dilemma.
It is. [laughs] I don't eat penguins. I could have gone for penguin! Why didn't I go for penguin?!
You've previously told us about going through your "struggling actor" phase. Did you do any commercials back then?
I did. I got one commercial. Commercial work is really hard, because it's very daunting. You can go every day, go on multiple ones, and never get anything, you know? And you just don't know why. It's a very particular look, or this, or that. I'll never forget booking my first commercial. It was a Mercury car commercial. Just such a score, because I just remember I pounded the pavement. They get you down because as an actor, it's not like you get to get really into a character or anything. You gotta show up, read some things, or do something crazy in front of a lot of people, and then hope. And so I always found them to be actually more like "painful to the soul." Because you felt like you couldn't really give your good work anyway, and yet you always were going out and being rejected regardless. [laughs]
Did you have the opportunity to do a series of those commercials, sort of like how actress Jill Wagner is "the Mercury girl" now?
Well, nobody knew who I was. (Not that they do now.) [laughs] It was just me getting started.
So do they give you a deal on a car when you do something like that?
No, they so don't. [laughs] It's like, "Get out of the car!" The car's more important than you. [frantically rubs the table] They're like making sure that it's perfectly buffed to a shine, you know? [laughs]
That was your first and only commercial?
That was the fir... [pauses] Well, you know what? I was in another commercial before that. My husband, many, many, many, many, many years ago, did a Sprite commercial, and I make a very brief visual appearance just as like a girl in the background. And it was before I even decided to take on acting as a real profession.
Okay, so they can't give you a car, but can they at least give you some Sprite?
I know! I don't know what happened. That was my husband's deal. I don't think I got paid for that Sprite commercial. [laughs] I think I just was in there. Maybe I did. I don't want to get Sprite in trouble. But no, no vats of Sprite for me.
You did your first late night talk show last week with host Craig Ferguson. How did that whole experience go for you?
It went really well. I had the craziest moment, Michael, where I was like, "Oh my God, I'm on national television right now!" It was funny, I had watched the show before and everything. I felt like people are always like, "It looks so much bigger in television than it does in real life!" So I remember going, "Gosh, it's small." And the funny thing is I remember that my biggest fear was the walk out. Because [there's] something about when you're nervous that you lose function of things that you know how to do--like walking! [laughs] You're not tripping over anything but your own feet. So once I made it through the walk and I got to this chair, I was like in another zone. I didn't even think anymore, and I was just flowing. And then I had a moment, I remember very distinctly, where I was like, [gasps] "Oh my God, you're on television--pull it together!" [laughs] So anyways, it was fun. I ended up having a good time, and once it was done, I was like, "Okay, I can do that now." Because before, I was very nervous.
Well, all the best to you, and continued success! Thanks so much for your time.